At this point, most independent political analysts are giving the edge to Republicans in this year’s fight for majority status in the U.S. Senate. Personally, I give the GOP a 60 percent chance of taking the majority, while others put it a little higher or lower. At least a half dozen very close races will be determined by just a point or two, and those can turn on events that may have yet to occur, making the battle for the majority very volatile. So far, the political season has been wild enough. Who knew that hog castration, trespassing chickens, and inappropriately billed charter flights costing less than $2,000 would take on such outsize importance?
Some questions worth asking here: If the conventional wisdom ends up being wrong, and Democrats maintain their hold on the Senate, why was it wrong? And if the Democrats manage to keep their net losses to five seats or less, what enabled them to do so? (These questions put aside the potential that independent Angus King of Maine—or, if he wins, Greg Orman of Kansas—will play a highly principled game of Let’s Make a Deal or just choose to caucus with whichever party is on top.) Should Republicans come up short—remembering of course that this very thing happened in 2012, when what could have been a three-seat net gain for the GOP eluded them and they ultimately suffered Senate losses—why could that be? What could go wrong for the GOP in 2014?
Unlike the last two election cycles, when “exotic” nominees cost the GOP as many as five seats, Republicans have nominated candidates who at the very least aren’t obviously out of the American political mainstream in every place that matters this cycle. So, candidate quality is not the issue for Republicans in 2014.
Two things may be keeping Republican strategists up at night: money and the Democratic ground game. Perhaps the biggest untold story of this election is how so many Republican and conservative donors, at least those whose last name isn’t Koch, have kept their checkbooks relatively closed. In many cases, GOP candidates are not enjoying nearly the same financial largesse that existed in 2012, and in some races, they are well behind Democrats. While Republican candidates, national party committees, and super PACs are hardly starving, their Senate and House campaign committees have not been able to keep pace in fundraising with their Democratic counterparts. Their super PACs do not have nearly the funding that they had in 2012 (even allowing for the absence of a presidential race this year). And, in a number of key races, Democratic candidates, party committees, and their allied groups have been on the air significantly more than Republicans. GOP strategists have privately said that if it were not for spending by organizations affiliated with the Koch brothers, they might well be in really bad shape.
Many Republican and conservative donors appear to be somewhat demoralized after 2012. They feel that they were misled about the GOP’s chances in both the presidential and senatorial races that year, and/or their money was not well spent. In short, they are giving less if at all, and it has put Republican candidates in a bind in a number of places.
Two examples quickly come to mind. In North Carolina, incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is holding onto a small lead that may be slowly expanding. This is happening in part because of the pounding they have been able to give state House Speaker Thom Tillis, the Republican nominee. There is a sense that a spending disparity might be emerging in Iowa, where Democrats—specifically the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s super PAC—have been attacking GOP nominee Joni Ernst in recent weeks.
Another reason things might not turn out for Republicans is if the highly touted Democratic Senate ground game comes together. Clearly the Obama campaign and Democratic allies had a superior voter-identification and get-out-the-vote operation two years ago. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats announced the Bannock Street Project, a $60 million program with the goal of putting in place 4,000 paid workers to use techniques perfected and put to work in 2010 by DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet in his race, and again two years ago by the Obama campaign. While some Republicans have scoffed at the likelihood of Democrats being able to mount such an effort, they concede that the Democratic ground game was superior two years ago. In midterm elections, if Democrats can crank up the turnout among young, female, and minority voters, then their chances of success this year increase.
Thus, if things go awry for Republicans on election night, some of the same factors that went wrong for them in 2012 will have been repeated.